Dlamini did what young students do
Share this article:
As former student leaders, Busani Ngcaweni and Robert Nkuna argue that a university should be the last place where students are expelled for their views.
Johannesburg - The Dlamini saga cannot be treated as an isolated case as it coincides with mass campaigns demanding qualitative transformation of higher education. At the epicentre of the storm are historically white universities like UCT, Wits, Rhodes, KwaZulu-Natal and Stellenbosch. These were citadels of white privilege and the charge from students and academics is that they remain so to this day.
As former student leaders in the mid-1990s during the mass campaigns led by Sasco, we are compelled to take a look at the latest developments, for what is happening represents the unfinished business of the struggle for transformation.
This piece is not confined to the Dlamini saga although it would be remiss not to comment on certain sub-texts that have a long-term bearing on the governance of higher education. In this regard, we highlight two significant issues emanating from the press release issued by Professor Adam Habib, the Vice Chancellor at Wits, announcing the removal of Dlamini from the SRC.
The unilateral decision of Habib to remove a sitting member of the SRC without canvassing the views of other SRC members, student organisations and the student fraternity in general, is tragic to say the least.
Even if Habib’s right to expel emanates from the SRC constitution or the rules of the university, we would still argue that such a provision is out of sync with the gains of students’ popular struggles for opening the doors of learning and culture and for meaningful participation in the governance affairs of higher education institutions.
This is particularly important considering the existence and advancement of democratic student representative bodies born in the terrain of struggle. Students are full members of the academy and they too should enjoy the right to express themselves freely, as long as they do not violate the constitutional rights of others.
Habib should know this well given his role at the then-Durban-Westville University in the 1990s. He should have led by example by allowing all stakeholders to express their views, and where they demonstrate poor comprehension of history, he should rehabilitate them using the best weapons in the university’s arsenal: knowledge.
Now that he is removed, Dlamini will not learn history from the streets of Soweto or Mpumalanga where he is reported to have grown up. Just earlier this year, Dlamini was a national hero when he led a successful fundraising campaign to support poor students.
At the very least, a transparent due process should have been followed to find him guilty of one or other charge, including his Hitler comments if they warrant expulsion. In Habib’s own words, Mcebo Dlamini has put Wits into disrepute. But now, which due process made that finding?
This is what academics advocate when they challenge state authorities. They cannot therefore be excused from such normative undertakings as transparency, inclusivity and due process.
On Dlamini’s Facebook post about Hitler, it is important to state that there is nothing illegal about his views, at least in the South African legal context, except that it demonstrates political naivete for someone from the congress tradition to align himself with Hitler who also saw black people as sub-humans and killed at least 2 million of them.
The reality is that many white leaders, especially members of the then-National Party, had warm feelings towards Nazi Germany, which inspired it to consolidate such vile policies as Bantu education and the Bantustans. Like Hitler, they believed that Africans were sub-human, not worthy of studying maths and science, let alone owning property and participating in the country’s main body politic.
But many people feel that, his under-reading of history aside, Dlamini’s act does not warrant a referral to a disciplinary hearing – for two reasons. First, Dlamini did not break any law and it is doubtful that Wits’s own code of conduct outlaws such expression. Moreover, Wits has many other students and academics who openly express racism and prejudice. They too will have to be expelled.
Further, South Africans remain divided in the appraisal of our history since the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in the Cape.
As it is, there is no consensus on who the heroes are to be celebrated by all South Africans. Paul Kruger, for example, is revered in the Afrikaner community while he is seen as a colonialist in the black community.
It is offensive to many black people for some white Afrikaners to wave the old apartheid flag, which many black people see as no different to the Nazi swastika. Habib understands these paradoxes.
Instead of being bogged down with Hitler, we have to come to terms with our own Malans, Verwoerds and Bothas – Nazis by all accounts. And the university, as the foremost meeting place of learning for people from different backgrounds, should play a facilitative role to manage difficult issues and debate. UCT has done much better at this in recent times.
Understandably, since 1994, universities have become big businesses, and therefore compete with each other to gain and maintain good reputations so as to attract sponsors and partners throughout the world. This is a good thing.
But overdone, this “look good” perspective may have unintended consequences, as universities start to not only shy away from controversies, but do everything possible to avoid possible negative publicity.
Universities are supposed to construct and deconstruct long-held beliefs and ideas.
Renewed social enquiry on traditional approaches to life and things around us should enable discourse even on difficult and complicated issues.
It is for this reason that we argue that Habib’s statement was more about marketing the university than dealing with simmering dynamics in the broader society, which unavoidably find space on the university premises.
This is a sensitive topic, one that can easily cast one as insensitive to the feelings of the sections of society offended by Dlamini. Yet it is no mitigation of sentence – whatever it should be.
As former student leaders, we are arguing that a university should be the last place where students are expelled for their views. Universities should help students understand society, teach them responsibility and guide them in the journey towards self-discovery.
We too made gross mistakes and were forgiven by society.
We were young and reckless. We went through political education. We learnt.
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.